All the World's a Stage: Embracing God's Grand Story and the Role We Play

 

It’s my turn to write a blog today. Hasn’t gone well. At 10:45 a.m., my Google calendar alarm went off, notifying me that I had 15 minutes to submit at least 500 words to the Summitview blog. At 10:45 a.m., I had exactly zero words written.

At 1:45 p.m., I had zero words written. The white, blank slate of Microsoft Word was putting minimalist graphic designers to shame.

This was not writer’s block. This was narrative deficit disorder: my heart and soul were sluggish, uninspired and thoroughly conflicted with contradictions in my own life’s story. I was distracted and dissatisfied with my performance in life, with how I was playing the character “me.” I wasn’t embracing the conflict as an opportunity to grow, but to pout.

Here’s the rub: all good and timeless stories require conflict and contradictions. It’s just that in the middle of the scene where you’re reduced to tears on the bathroom floor, you don’t feel like your story is good. You don’t feel sufficient to play the role you’ve been given. You don’t like your character, because you keep tripping over the same inconsistencies and contradictions again, and again, and again.

Maybe you feel, like George Costanza, that your life is the complete opposite of everything you ever wanted it to be. Or, perhaps, you’re like Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, and you've had it with your lousy circumstances.

We Christians like to believe that we’re all a part of God’s big, redemptive story. I believe that’s true. I believe that there’s a lot of identity-forming power in believing that the God of the universe cares about the details of your life and my life. I just think we do a poor job of remembering that the ending of this story has already been revealed.

The trailer leaked on YouTube: it’s a happy ending. He gets the girl.

I think we choose not to remember the ending because it allows us to indulge in our selfishness and complaints. It’s cathartic. But it’s fleeting, empty.

So, I sat at my desk today, failing to remember the ending. Unable to come up with a decent idea for a blog. Unhappy with the development of my own character arch. Unhappy with my tuna on toast. Unhappy with my dead parrot.

I believe this is where the Director wants us. He wants us to come to the end of ourselves, to realize the vanity of our self-sufficiency.

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:5-6)

 

And like any good and trustworthy director, God gives us the proper motivation to live, to act out our scenes. “For the love of Christ controls us,” Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5:14. I like what Michael Dodson says: “We don’t fight for acceptance; we fight from our acceptance [as new creations in Christ].”

Do you not like where you are? Do you not like your role? Your scene? Your stage? It’s because the focus is on you. Earlier today, I was focused on me – not my Father, not his story, not his unending love for me.

We can be the most thankless beings. Paul Tripp once noted that sin is anti-social. And when we become anti-social, we become like Jonah, a first-class pout pot. Sin is reading your lines and tearing into the Writer for not giving you better jokes, instead of thanking him for even giving you a role in the grandest story ever told.

I’d like to close with a quote from N.D. Wilson’s brilliant Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. He paints the mood well. It’s beautiful, convicting and humbling, and it cuts to the heart of our motivation and the goodness of our story’s Author:

But gratitude is all-important. Everything is a gift. Every smell, every second, every ice cream dollar. Gratitude for the whole story, from beginning to end, gratitude for the valleys and the shadows that lead us to the novel’s final page.

 

Take a step and thank God, for He holds you in His hand. Never ask to be put down. Never struggle for separation or for worth apart from His gifts. Breathe, taste His world, His words, and marvel that you are here to feel the blowing swirl of life. To be blown by it.

 

Enjoy your ice cream.

Triumph and Hope in Challenging Places

A few weeks back, I settled in for my evening reading. My main passage for the night was Romans 8 and, as I read its words, I wept because I didn’t know what to do with them:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25)

 

I never got to anything else that night. I just sat and stewed, praying, weeping, trying to figure out how hope can be placed in a passage laden with such turmoil.

I’ve struggled with the concept of hope in recent years. Personally, I’ve held out hope for a lot of things yet unseen. The earth is definitely groaning. Our bodies, too. It’s hard to have patience when the experiences we walk through are difficult. Hope is a tricky word in our language because it can connote so many different types of waiting. 

But the hard passages and books, like Romans 8 and James and 1 John, are necessary – they require us to examine ourselves and be assured of our salvation before God (1 John 3:19). They help us remember to have hope in eternal things purchased for us by Christ crucified and risen, and not in the things of this world (which always decay, according to my knowledge of basic physics).

About a month ago, I started through the book of James with Beth Moore’s study. It’s a tough book on my heart (having been raised by believing parents and having wrestled periodically with the whole faith-versus-works thing in James 2), but buried in this challenging text is the very reason we study it:

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder! (James 2:19)

 

This very thing should rattle us. It should create in us a desire to examine ourselves honestly:

Realizing that we share a certain amount of our belief system with demons from hell is humbling and frightening. Make no mistake. They are monotheists. They have seen the glory of the Lord God Himself. They know there is no one like Jehovah. They also know that Jesus is His Son. (Beth Moore, “Mercy Triumphs,” p. 102)

 

We need to do more than just claim God is who He is says He is. The demons claim that. We need to walk in light of those truths. We need the Spirit to intercede for us, searching our hearts (Romans 8:26-27) and to recognize the Word of God as life-giving, even when we grapple to fit its pieces together.

At the end of a summer like this last one, where heat, drought and fire destroy, cancers threaten loved ones, and lives are lost in the middle of the night at the hands of fallen men, where do we place our hope? Do we really find rest in the beautiful truth that Jesus Christ was made “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21)? Do we really believe that each one of us was once under His wrath (Psalm 90:9)?

I have brawled intensely with God this summer, as I’m certain have many of you. In the midst of my lack of understanding, however, He has graciously reminded me of His triumphant mercy over my own days. I may not know all the reasons why, but returning my sight to the Gospel – the truths of fallen man and merciful God – grants me all the perspective I need to find hope for things unseen.

A Quick Word on the New Bulletin

Last Sunday, we debuted a new bulletin design. So far, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

But we have received multiple inquiries regarding the status of two of our pastors. On the previous bulletin, Summitview’s pastors – Mitch Majeski, Aaron Ritter, John Meyer, Pat Sokoll and Chris Sheets – were showcased on the back cover. In the new bulletin iteration, only Mitch, Aaron and John are listed as our pastors. Naturally, some members of our congregation wondered if Pat and Chris were no longer pastors.

Great observation, great question. And the answer is, yes: both Pat and Chris are still pastor-elders at Summitview. Pat did not kidnap Chris to help him start a bicycle shop in rural Chile.

It’s been a season of change for the Loveland church, so Pat and Chris have dedicated most of their energies toward shepherding our sister flock. And because that trend will continue through the foreseeable future, we felt it was more accurate to list only Mitch, Aaron and John in our Sunday bulletin.

God is doing exciting things in Loveland, and Pat will give us an update on what’s been taking place there at our Sunday morning service on September 30.

As a closing aside and general point of encouragement, be sure to keep Summitview’s pastors in your prayers. These five men work hard to seek the Lord’s direction for our local body, and it means the world to them when their fellow brothers and sisters lift them up to the throne room of grace.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading, and keep your stick on the ice.

Impossible is Nothing when We Let God Do the Work

 

Reading through the Gospels before the semester started, God gave me Jesus' words to chew on: "Apart from Me, you can do nothing."

Really? Nothing? In a very literal sense, yes. If God doesn't allow me to take another breath, guess what? I ain't taking it. Unless He graciously continues giving me words to type and a mind to put together coherent sentences, this blog will not be written.
 
And yet, at the same time, it seems like He has given me a lot of freedom to take those gifts He has given and use them in a variety of different ways. Will I strive on "my own strength" to accomplish great things in hopes that people will look to me and think I'm awesome?
 
Here's another option: Will I trust God's leading into what are impossible situations on my own strength, depending on Him alone to come through? When I do this, I can't possibly take credit for the results. Jesus' disciples run up to Him all excited: "Even demons submit to us in Your Name." We don't see them slowly strutting up to Jesus with smug looks on their faces: “Yeah, just like we planned.”

No. The disciples were amazed! This was something supernatural that they were a part of. They spoke the name of Jesus, and the most terrifyingly evil creatures ever bowed down in submission. This was nothing Jesus' followers mustered on their own strength or wisdom. This was God using people to do something extraordinary for His glory.
 
"Apart from Me, you can do NOTHING!" It's amazing how quickly I forget this and try by my own efforts to do something of eternal value for the Kingdom. It's not going to happen. I can't save anybody; the Father has to be drawing hearts. I can't give just the right argument that is going to turn someone to Christ; the Holy Spirit has to be convicting of sin. I can't make anyone want to follow Jesus or love Him with all they have; God has to do a miracle and raise the dead and remove hearts of stone and replace with hearts of flesh. 
 
Walking with Tom Short over to campus yesterday for his first day of open air preaching, I asked him if he still got nervous before he talked. He replied, “Not nervous, but not over-confident either.” He prays each time before going out that God will show up, realizing that if He doesn't, nothing of any eternal value is going to be accomplished. Tom has been doing this for more than 30 years. I know if I were him, I would be very tempted to think, "I've heard every question, I've studied up on every response, I got this." It was so good for me to see, still, after all these years, a humble and total dependence on God's power to move. 
 
I was able to observe the plaza at CSU the rest of the day as God indeed did show up. It was so encouraging looking around the circle, seeing so many Rockers engaged in spiritual conversations with those listening. God answered prayers. There were soft hearts ready to listen and engage in spiritual conversations. The good news of Jesus Christ went out boldly and clearly. God opened doors for it to be received and provided for a lot of follow-up conversations. 
 
There's more to be done, more hearts to be drawn, more dead to be raised, more lives to be bowed down to the only One worth bowing to, and here we are, completely helpless on our own to make any of it happen. And yet we are not on our own. God makes the impossible possible: He raises the dead and moves hearts. He has invited us to be with Him as He does all this. Will we join Him in His work?
 
We can do nothing apart from Him, but there is nothing impossible with Him. 

The Arrow and the Target: Understanding Music's Place in Worship

 

God gave us an incredible gift in music. As Martin Luther said, "Music is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God."  

I've always been a music fanatic. I remember even as a small child playing the same song over and over and over again, singing at the top of my lungs. I'm a heart guy; I've always been moved to strongly express myself with music. I just do it by default. And since I've been saved, this desire is tied to the recognition of the sinfulness of my flesh, the pressure and pain of the world around me, and ultimately the hope rooted in knowing that none of these things have the power to snatch me out of God's hand, that Jesus Christ has secured my future and overcome the world in what he did on the cross.

Though I seem to understand it in an emotional sense, over the years I've had to do some serious thinking about why music is used in our church services, particularly since I'm one of the people responsible for this aspect of the Sunday service in our local body. I think we often worship music. Sometimes we even worship our worship services. I get the "I really loved your worship today" comment often. My typical response is, "Did you worship, too?" Or, sometimes, I get the reverse: "I just couldn't worship because the guitar was out of tune." I want to ask if they also can’t love their wife when they’re out on a date simply because the restaurant has bad service.  

Worship is not music. The term "worship" is simply the basic acknowledgment that something or someone is greater and worth more than anything else. Whatever I value most, long for most, desire to talk about and express the most, that is what I worship. 

So, if music isn't worship, why do we use music in our Sunday service? Whenever we attempt to put structure in our lives, the Bible is the authoritative place to begin. The Bible is full of declarations of godly people singing to God. Psalm 9:11, 30:4, 66:2-4, 95:1-2, 100:2, 105:2, 135:3, for example, specifically command us to sing. These commands should be reason enough for the Christian to sing, but I think we can examine it further.

Romans 8:22-23 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

Further on in Romans 8:26, Paul writes, “. . . the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

Neither of these passages is specifically referring to music, but they do speak to a type of communication that goes beyond words, a very personal method of receiving and giving thoughts and feelings. Music affects us emotionally and physically. It creates a mood and softens our hearts. It aids our memory and focuses our attention (or distracts, depending on the music/context). If you don't agree with me, imagine watching your favorite movie without the soundtrack playing.

Through music we express things that we cannot express in words. A minor chord progression resonates with the tension in our souls. A key change or octave jump stirs our hearts. We suddenly have an understanding of a concept that goes much deeper than if we had simply read the lyrics of the song. In music, God has given us a way to create fertile ground in the soul, and then apply His truth to that fertility. In this action, He is seen for who he is – lifted up, set apart – and we are moved to repentance, to rejoicing and to drawing closer to Him.

The Bible, our source of all truth, references moments when people worshipping could be heard up to 10 miles away from the temple, and other times people were in silence, flat on their faces. It refers to body language used in worship: clapping, singing, bowing, kneeling, lifting hands, shouting, dancing, standing in awe. 

The bottom line: God didn't make us to be disembodied spirits, nor are we just chemicals and biology. We can't separate ourselves from emotions when we get excited or sad. Nor can we distill worship of God down to intellectual discussion of truths. God's command is to love him with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. When we engage our whole selves in declaring God is greater and worth more than anything (worshipping!), bodies and emotions included, He is pleased.

I think that's permission enough to let loose and sing out. But don't lose yourself in the electric guitar. Lose yourself in Jesus. Don't crave 35 minutes of emotional engagement. Crave emotional engagement with Jesus. Overtones and harmonics are incredible, but Jesus is more incredible because he created them. Music should be an arrow, pointing you toward the target of God.

So, on Sunday morning as I sing and play my guitar, the music should simply facilitate your already worshipping hearts to join in gathering around Jesus, the Glorious One. Together we can lose ourselves in that great human emotion which cannot co-exist with pride and selfishness.

Adoration.

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